Propolis is a sticky substance produced by honey bees using resins collected from trees and plants. To make propolis, bees mix the resins with wax and other material. Bees use propolis, or “bee glue”, to seal cracks and gaps in the hive, as well as to protect the hive from pests and diseases (hence, “bee penicillin”).
Propolis has antibacterial and antiviral properties making it a valuable hive product with potential benefits for human health, in addition to its use in the hive.
While propolis is a valuable hive product, propolis can be a pain in the neck for beekeepers. By sealing seams between hive components, bees effectively glue them together. Heavily propolized boxes and frames can be difficult to separate, even with a hive tool.
This article gets into detail about propolis for beginning beekeepers.
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What Is Propolis?
Bees produce propolis using resins from trees and plants that foraging bees carry back to the hive with their pollen baskets. House bees remove the resins from foragers and mix them with wax and saliva to create bee propolis.
We’ve seen people refer to the plant resins as “propolis.” For our purposes, propolis refers to the resinous product produced by the honey beees.
According to the USDA Forest Service, resins are sap-like “plant products that, are not soluble in water, harden when exposed to air, do not play a role in the fundamental processes of the plant, and. are generally produced by woody plants
In the hive, bees convert the resins to bee propolis by mixing them with wax, honey, and enzymes. The rough makeup of propolis is:
- Resin 50 – 70%
- Oil and wax (30 – 50%)
- Pollen (5 – 10%)
- Other chemical compounds including: amino acids, minerals, sugars, vitamins B, C and E, flavonoids, phenol, as well as aromatic compounds[i]
Beekeepers recognize bee propolis as a sometimes sticky, sometimes hardened, reddish-brown substance that bees put in all the cracks and crevices.
The word “propolis” is derived from the Greek words “pro” (before) and “polis” (city), meaning “defender of the city.” This refers to the use of propolis by bees to seal their hive and defend it from bacteria and other invaders.
How Do Bees Use Propolis?
Bees use propolis to seal cracks and gaps to protect against the elements and pests.
These spaces include tiny gaps between hive components and frames, particularly areas smaller than “bee space.” Think of it as caulking.
Bee space is that distance of 3/8 of an inch where bees can travel but will not build comb. Bee space is the foundation of the Langstroth hive design.
With its antimicrobial properties, propolis helps the bees keep the hive clean and disease-free. For this reason, bees may coat the hive walls, frame bars, and more with propolis. It can even be used to embalm dead animals (like mice) that the bees cannot remove.[ii]
It is also used by bees to coat the inside of the hive, creating a sterile environment for the raising of young bees. In addition, propolis has been shown to have antimicrobial properties, helping to keep the hive free from disease.
Beekeepers employ several methods of harvesting propolis. The easiest method is using a propolis trap.
A propolis trap is a flexible grid with small openings. Place the trap above a hive box and the bees will seal the cracks especially if you allow a little light in or in the fall to help insulate the hive. A propolis trap looks much like a queen excluder except with much smaller openings that do not permit bees to pass.
Once filled, the trap and be removed and put in a freezer. Frozen propolis will pop up with a simple twist of the trap for easy collection.
You can also scrape propolis off hive components and collect it.
However, propolis collected in this manner includes assorted debris, including wood shavings and wax. You can remove the unwanted material by soaking the collection in water where the propolis will separate and sink to the bottom.[iii]
When handling and storing propolis, keep it clean and dry to prevent contamination and deterioration. Store propolis in airtight containers, away from heat and light.
Once cleaned, propolis doesn’t require any more processing until it is incorporated into another product.
One use for propolis is in tinctures – liquid extracts of propolis that can be used as a natural antiseptic and disinfectant. To make a propolis tincture, propolis is soaked in a solvent, such as alcohol, to extract the active compounds. The resulting tincture can be used as is or further processed into other products, such as creams or ointments.
Another use is for propolis capsules. Propolis is ground into a fine powder and mixed with a suitable filler, such as gelatin or cellulose, to form the capsules that can be taken orally.
In addition to tinctures and capsules, propolis can also be used to make other products, such as toothpaste, creams, ointments, and lozenges.
Benefits Of Propolis
Propolis has a long history of use in traditional medicine for its antibacterial and antiviral properties.
According to WebMD, “Propolis seems to help fight against bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It might also have anti-inflammatory effects and help skin heal.”
Other potential health benefits are claimed for propolis but lack sufficient scientific evidence to support them.
Is Honey The Same As Propolis?
Honey is not the same as propolis though they are both produced by honey bees.
Honey is a sweet, sticky substance made by bees from the nectar of flowers. Bees store it in the hive as a source of food for the bees and beekeepers harvest it for human consumption.
Propolis, on the other hand, is a sticky, substance collected by bees from plant resins and used to seal cracks and gaps in the hive. as well as to protect the hive against diseases and pests.
While both honey and propolis are produced by bees and have some health benefits, they are distinct products with different uses and properties.
We have a separate article describing What Is Honey? that may interest you.
Propolis is a valuable product for beekeepers, with numerous uses in the hive and potential benefits for human health. Whether it is used to protect and seal your hive or to create propolis products for sale, it is worth exploring the potential of this amazing bee product.
This article is part of our series that explores the different hive products created by honey bees.
[i] Ahangari Z, Naseri M, Vatandoost F. Propolis: Chemical Composition and Its Applications in Endodontics. Iran Endod J. 2018 Summer;13(3):285-292. doi: 10.22037/iej.v13i3.20994. PMID: 30083195; PMCID: PMC6064031.
[ii] The Beekeeper’s Handbook, 4th Edition by Diana Sammataro and Alphonse Avitabile – Chapter 12